Sunday, November 06, 2005

Day 37: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bennie: You guys are definitely on my shit list!

The title alone makes this one worth watching.  The title of this film also makes it worth claiming as your favorite movie, even though you might be lying.  This is not my favorite movie, though it is an enjoyably gritty and grisly crime movie and I loved how it jumps into the existential question that all of cinema’s hardened anti-heroes ask themselves (it’s usually something along the lines of “can I love?” but here it’s “how much is love worth?”) with giddy abandon.  It suffers only from some awkwardness in its first act and obedience to some of the limitations of its genre.  But, still, it’s a finely executed movie with a real film noir-like nihilism to it.

Somewhere in Mexico: Alfredo Garcia impregnated the daughter of a wealthy man, a guy not above having his goons break his daughter’s arm to reveal the name of her lover.  Upon learning the name, he offers one million dollars to whoever brings him the head of Alfredo Garcia.  Thinking I knew what kind of film I would be seeing, I settled in, expecting the familiar beats of some bounty hunter tracking him down, having second thoughts, and maybe doing it anyway for the money.  I was pleasantly mistaken.

Instead, the movie plays around with the familiar beats.  The joke on everyone (both watching the movie and in it) is that the titular head belongs to a man who’s already died.  So, Bennie, our hardened, cynical anti-hero, is hired by some mysterious operatives to bring the head back for ten thousand dollars.  And instead of killing Garcia, he must dig the grave up and chop the head off.  When he arrives at Garcia’s grave with his ready-to-settle-down-and-get-married Mexican girlfriend Elita, she balks at the grisly task.  But, there’s another delightful wrinkle in the plot: he was an ex-lover of hers.  So, rather than just have the woman acting as spiritual guide to the sexually insecure Bennie, it’s now unclear (at least to Bennie) if she wants to prevent him from chopping the dead head off of Garcia for spiritual reasons, or to preserve a man she might have loved.  Indeed, Bennie’s severing of the head becomes a strange effort at macho posturing, proving his permanence in Elita’s life by destroying the corpse of her ex.

This sort-of storytelling continues throughout the film, with the movie twisting genre conventions in order to dig deep into what motivates Bennie, what he lives for, what he would die for.  It’s always fun to have one’s expectations thwarted in a movie like this and I was never more pleased in this way than when Bennie was confronted by Alfredo Garcia’s family (They wanted the head back).  The movie is also successful at joyfully mixing the sacred with the profane.  To wit: Bennie strides through the party following the baptism of Garcia’s baby with Garcia’s head in a sack swarming with flies.  

Warren Oates shines in the role of Bennie, grimacing under a huge pair of dark sunglasses for almost the whole picture.  He growls menacingly at the severed head, his only companion for a long car ride home, asks it questions, and, in a weird way, befriends it, much as Tom Hanks befriended the volleyball in Castaway.  He physically embodies the desperation well. Looking at him, you can almost smell the alcohol oozing out of his pores.

This is all good stuff, twisted and unapologetic.  But the movie falters at the beginning in finding its pace, establishing the main characters in fits, starts, and oblique gestures that don’t really connect until half-an-hour in.  (Bennie’s musicality at the beginning of the movie is all-but forgotten, replaced by a tough-guy machismo that doesn’t mesh well with how he’s characterized at the start of the flick)  It’s also got some improbable gun fights and car chases, stuff that I can overlook for the sake of genre, but still bother me since it seems like they’re stuck in for sensationalist reasons or pure plot, rather than informing or developing aspects of the characters involved.  This is not to mention the misogynistic streak that runs through the movie (though to its credit, it is struggling with its misogony and not explicitly endorsing it, though it comes close a few times).

I liked Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia quite a bit.  It felt like a meshing of the grittiest film noir with the emotional and visual landscape of a Leone film.  It’s my third Peckinpah film (following The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs), and he’s certainly a competent director and good at getting male frustration out of his actors and onto the screen.  But for all the fun trickery and twisting, the movie never goes inward deep enough for my tastes or tries to be anything much more than a solid, three-dimensional genre film.  This is something to be appreciated (particularly in this age of films slavish in their adherenece to genre, or acting as if meshing many genres together automatically questions the genre [oh George Lucas…]) but not necessarily applauded.  Since the movie dips its toes into the pool of complexity, I waited for it to wade further in.  I got a bloodbath ending, one borne of questioning the character a wee bit.  Not bad.  Not entirely good.  Still, ask me what my favorite movie is.